It’s easy to watch what transpired this summer and look at the Eastern Conference as a wasteland. Paul George and Jimmy Butler were shipped West for little return. LeBron James is not so quietly planning a move to LA himself, leaving the East wide open for any star who is willing to take a seat at the throne. Assuming LeBron leaves it will be the first time someone else will represent the East in the Finals.
Things are definitely in limbo to say the least. But with so much star talent outbound there will be a lot of opportunity for the other guys. John Wall has carried himself like a superstar and now he can finally make that run. Giannis Antetokounmpo made some noise last year. With just LeBron in his way the Greek Freak could start his ascension as the new king of the East.
Same goes for the two unicorns in the Atlantic division, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid. Can they start to carry their struggling franchises back to relevance or will the Boston Celtics reign supreme? A lot of moving parts to get to in a conference that is going through a rebuild itself.
Let’s break it down with takes from Mike Cortez and Tyler Birss of H&H.
Is this version of Giannis Antetokounmpo ready to challenge LeBron James in the East?
To borrow Bill Simmons shtick for a moment and say that I am trying to corner the market on Giannis stock. As of right now him and Kawhi Leonard are my two favorites to take home the MVP. Mostly because they run their own show, but both are insanely good at what they do.
Last season the Greek phenom proved two things – one, he’s really fucking good and two, he’s in this game for legacy. After signing an $100 million extension Giannis took the “leap” and carried the Bucks into the playoffs.
The pairing of his limitless physical potential with Jason Kidd’s brain has resulted in a formidable foe for LeBron. The great thing about Giannis is he knows how good he is getting and seems to welcome the challenge. Even if that challenge involves taking down the King. We saw glimmers of what could be a passing of the torch rivalry between LeBron and Giannis last season.
Giannis took it to LeBron. That is a rare occurrence elite guys such as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Carmelo Anthony can boast about doing. Even better was it ticked LeBron off. In the three matchups after that game the Cavs, and LeBron in particular, took the Bucks to school. The Bucks didn’t back down which only makes me wonder what could have been had Jabari Parker not tore his ACL.
This season Bucks vs. Cavs figures to be the rivalry to watch. Kyrie vs. LeBron is fun, but Kyrie cannot realistically stop LeBron. Giannis can. With Paul George and Jimmy Butler gone, Carmelo with Houston on his mind, there is no one else to make LeBron sweat. That will be Giannis and the Bucks’ mission this season.
And in case Giannis needed more motivation, Kobe Bryant (isn’t funny how Kobe always finds his way into LeBron’s basketball life?) was there to assist the young buck.
Giannis requested, Kobe obliged. Look out NBA.
Giannis is one of the most athletic and physically gifted players of all time. I will debate to the death anyone who says otherwise. His combination of athleticism and length makes him a complete physical rarity. Still just 22-years-old, it’s clear that Giannis will continue improving, and he already put up a 22.9/8.8/5.4 line last year. If you look towards the annual stats during his first four years, a picture is painted of steady improvement. Giannis has grown into a substantially stronger player each year in the association.
This is a fascinating question since it can be broken down in two parts. Can Giannis personally challenge LeBron James and give him a competitive battle? Yes. Can Giannis lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a point of hanging with the Cleveland Cavaliers? No. Actually, not no, it’s hell to the naw, to the naw naw naw. The Bucks did reach the playoffs last season and snag the six-seed – a solid season that nevertheless is light years away from being in Cleveland’s ballpark.
What also stands out about this situation is that Giannis and LeBron might be on too different of a path for this to develop into a meaningful rivalry. LeBron has been in the NBA since Giannis was a child, and it’s entirely possible that LeBron will be in the West or past his prime (it will happen someday, I swear) once Giannis reaches his full peak. A true rivalry or authentic battle must occur when both players or teams are on similar paths.
In other words, both squads must be deemed legitimate contenders and they eventually meet on a collision course where the winner will tell us everything we need to know. Giannis and LeBron will provide juicy regular season showdowns, but at this point, that’s about it. And don’t put it past LeBron to use the sacrificial lamb Richard Jefferson to take turns on him, or more likely, a committed defender in Jae Crowder.
Even if that’s the case for a LeBron conscious of saving part of himself for the playoffs, the young Giannis should cherish his chances to guard the King. With Kobe Bryant issuing Giannis the challenge of winning an MVP, look for the Greek Freak to embrace the 2017-18 season like a man on a mission. Giannis plays the correct position and has the necessary talent to give LeBron a run.